Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Three Buckets: Advice for Students (including myself)

(First of all, thanks and credit to Maundy Mitchell Photography for the dandy profile pic!)

This is a metaphor/piece of advice that I’ve been giving to students, and discussing with colleagues and family members, and trying to take myself, for the past several years. A couple of people have mentioned it to me in recent weeks, so I thought I’d post it here.

When you’re working to complete a degree, you’re trying to fill three buckets:

-- the “degree requirements” bucket – What do I need to do to finish this bleeping degree?

-- the “life’s work” bucket – What do I feel passionate about doing with my life – what’s my calling, my vocation – and what do I need to do to pursue that?

-- the “making a living” bucket – What do I need to do to earn money after I’ve finished my degree and while I’m pursuing my life’s work?

If you’ve planned carefully and know yourself well, or if you’re extremely fortunate, the things that you’re doing to fill the first bucket will also spill over and help fill the second and third buckets. BUT, it’s a mistake to expect and assume that working to fill only one of the buckets will somehow fill the other two. The sooner and more actively you work on putting stuff into all three buckets, the fuller each bucket will be.

I could carry this metaphor in a number of directions – for example, I could go on at length about the pressure colleges and universities are under to pretend that the second bucket doesn’t exist, and to concentrate on filling the third bucket to the exclusion of everything else. However, I’ll close for now by pointing out that, once we’ve completed all the degrees we intend to complete (and that number might be zero!), we’re left with two buckets. My goal these days is to keep myself honest about putting stuff in both buckets, and not confusing one with the other.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Acceptance Speech, Plymouth State Distinguished Teaching Award, 2018

First of all, I see the publication date on my last blog entry and I'm ashamed! If you read the entry below, you'll see what I've been up to instead of blogging.

Earlier this month, I was honored to receive the 2018 Distinguished Teaching Award from my colleagues at Plymouth State University. Several of them have asked me to post the text of my acceptance speech somewhere -- my friend Scott Coykendall (recipient of this year's Distinguished Service Award from PSU) posted his remarks on his blog, so thanks for the idea, Scott! My only other prefatory remark -- I found out after I wrote this speech that the accomplishments of my friend Liz Ahl, who won this year's Distinguished Scholarship Award from PSU, would be read just before my speech, so I babbled out something else about her on the fly.

After some initial comments,what's contained below are many, many thanks for pedagogical and personal inspiration -- I'm very happy to have the opportunity to repeat them here.

I’m having a wonderful sabbatical. It started slowly, until I gave myself unqualified permission to focus on my individual scholarly/creative work. Now, the days are flying by all too quickly – I’m barely managing to find time to eat, pay bills, interact with other humans, etc. I’m immersed all the way over my head in my silo, and I am LOVING IT.

However, while I’m swimming around in my silo, I’m discovering more and more things that I can’t wait to share with our students starting next semester, both in my discipline and across disciplines – things about digital media; enabling constraints, DISabling constraints, and the creative process; collaboration, individuality, and hierarchy; the structure of produced objects in and out of the arts; the exploration of how the things we make represent us in the world.  In other words, my individual scholarly/creative work is feeding the teaching I will do in the future – as it has ALWAYS done, and always will do, for ALL of us in academe.

I strongly believe that my deep, passionate engagement with my specific area of scholarship and creativity led me directly to the teaching work that you have honored with this award. Our scholarly/creative work is the taproot of everything we do as university professors, and everything that leads to the success of a college or university – meaningful service, a reputation for academic excellence that SELLS, that leads to successful recruitment and retention, a prosperous and supportive alumni base, strong community support, etc. etc. etc. And of course, first and foremost, great teaching. Rich teaching. Passionate, concerned teaching.

If we as faculty believe this – that our scholarly/creative work is central to our work as teachers – then we need to speak out for it. If we as professors don’t advocate for this central truth, no one else will. If we as scholars don’t advocate for depth and rigor, even while working toward interdisciplinary breadth in a new model for higher education, then a timeless and worthwhile value of our profession will be lost. And the primary sufferers of that loss will be our students, the people we most hope to serve.

I have so many people to thank! If you think I should have mentioned your name, and I forgot – you’re right, and I’m sorry! First of all, thanks to all the wonderful teachers I’ve had in my life who aren’t in this room, who inspired me to enter this field as my life’s work. Special thanks in this regard to the Greeneville City Schools in my hometown of Greeneville, TN, and the master teachers I encountered throughout my twelve years there. They gave me a GREAT education, and taught me a lifelong lesson on the inestimable value of public education to the American people.

Thanks to all the students I’ve taught at Plymouth State, all of whom have taught me in some way, and so many of whom are now my colleagues and friends.

Thanks to the administrators here who have helped me be a better teacher for my students. I particularly want to recognize those who have won this award, or its graduate counterpart, in the past – Virginia Barry, recipient of PSU’s first Distinguished Teaching Award in 1985; Julie Bernier, recipient of the 2003 Distinguished Graduate Teaching Award; David Zehr, 2004 recipient of this award; and Cynthia Vascak, 2009 recipient. By the way, if you’d like a smile sometime, go back and look at the list of recipients of these awards – so many valued friends, wonderful teachers, great spirits!

Thanks to my colleagues and friends in the Department of Music, Theatre, and Dance for their consistent example of dedication to teaching and student success above and beyond the call of duty. I was recently copied on an email from a colleague from another department, who wrote to tell us how much she enjoyed having majors from one of our disciplines in her class this semester. She wrote: “They are responsible, engaged, thoughtful, mature, and professional. They are strong writers and strong thinkers.” This is not the first time I’ve heard such words of praise about MTD students from colleagues in other departments, and I can think of no words that make me prouder.

Today, in thinking specifically about teaching, I want to mention three MTD colleagues in particular – Dan Perkins, whom I have referred to elsewhere as “a bright light through 24 winters”; Carleen Graff, who’s given me the privilege of watching a master teacher inspire my own son to engage deeply with the field I love so much; and Beth Daily, recipient of this award in 2008, who quietly, passionately, loves her field and cares about and inspires her students.

Thanks to all of you for the wonderful teaching that goes on all over this campus, among staff as well as faculty, all of you imparting important life lessons to our students with love, concern, and professionalism. I want to single out some personal heroes of mine – colleagues who are well-known on this campus as GREAT, GREAT teachers, who do what they need to do in the midst of teaching and service loads that have administrators and faculty members at other institutions shaking their heads in disbelief in order to remain deeply, passionately engaged with the scholarly and creative work they love.

Robin DeRosa, a master teacher whose acknowledged expertise in the shifting paradigm of contemporary higher education has led to her being named one of higher education’s 50 “must-read” bloggers by EdTech Magazine.

Lourdes Aviles, a master teacher who has published one book, and has contracts for two books in hand, with the American Meteorological Society – the principal scholarly society in her field.

Ann McClellan, a master teacher, who, despite the time demands of having a finger in almost every administrative and faculty reorganizational pie on this campus, is completing a book under contract to the University of Iowa Press.

Becky Noel, a master teacher who is spending time engaged in outreach to communities throughout New Hampshire with historical lectures about our past, and is completing a book under contract to the Johns Hopkins University Press.

Liz Ahl, a master teacher and AMAZING poet, who not only writes and publishes chapbooks – she makes them, and teaches her students how to make them too. Her first full-length book of poetry, Beating the Bounds, was recently published. Go buy a copy if you haven’t yet -- it’s wonderful!

Finally and foremost, all thanks and love to the best artist, best person, and best teacher I know, Marcia Santore, and my fellow students in her small-n classes of one, two, and three, my sons Peter and Thomas. Getting to share my life with them, and learn from them, is a constant joy and blessing.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Question #1: Who’s ultimately going to perform it?

I find that a lot of new composers who are interested in writing for live performers get frustrated because they end up having to do a lot of what I call “back-composition” in order to get a piece to performance. In most cases, this happens because they use a digital medium – a DAW or notation software – to create a work intended for performance by live musicians, but don’t spend enough time at the beginning of the process thinking about the individuals and ensembles who will ultimately perform the piece.

In my process, I like to put the musicians who will perform what I’m writing on the stage of my imagination and hear and record what comes out of them. Most of the time, this is a generic set of performers – a “Grade 3 Concert Band,” a “chamber orchestra,” etc., and I’m working within the generally-known timbres/capabilities/limitations of that set of performers. If I’m lucky, it’s a group of specific individuals I know well, and I’m working from personal knowledge of them.

Either way, I need to have a lot of information about the people sitting on my internal stage before I begin imagining new music for them – or else I’m going to end up having to re-imagine a lot of material just when I think I’m finished! For that reason, I think that the first, most important question a composer needs to ask herself before beginning a new work is, “Who’s ultimately going to perform it?” As I see it, there are three general answers to this question.

If you’re creating new music that will be performed by no one – a digital sound file, in other words  – then you don’t have to worry about conforming your compositional imagination to the capabilities of human performers and their instruments/voices. This is one of the reasons that composers have been interested in the idea of “musical machines” for centuries – it’s the closest they can get to a pure expression of the musical ideas they have inside their own heads. You imagine the music, you perfect it in the DAW, you create the sound file – bingo.

If you’re creating new music that will be performed by you, and you alone, then you’re only concerned about your limitations as a performer, and the limitations of the thing(s) you’re going to perform your new music with, and you should know those pretty well already.  If you’re a singer/guitarist creating something for you and you alone to perform, then you can’t expect to perform a work with notes higher than you can sing, or faster than you can play on guitar, or a really prominent English horn line, etc.

If you’re creating new music that will be performed by someone else, then you do have to worry about the capabilities of those others as performers, and the capabilities of the things they’re going to perform with, and you should be thinking about and working within those capabilities from the beginning of your process, or else you’re going to be confronted with them irritatingly at what you think should be the end of your process!

If you’re going to create music for someone else to perform on instrument X, then you should have at least a basic understanding of instrument X’s limitations – how high/low can it go? How loud/ soft can it go? etc., preferably before you begin your process. If you’re going to create music for a whole bunch of people to perform on a whole bunch of instruments or voices (orchestra, band, chorus, etc.), then you need to have a basic understanding of the capabilities of ALL those instruments or voices, and a basic understanding of how they all relate to one another in that particular ensemble, preferably before you begin your process.

I still refer to orchestration books often to touch base with all this information. One of the two best pieces of compositional advice I ever got came from the band composer Robert Jager, who said “Buy an orchestration book, and don’t be afraid to look in it!” The other came from my composition teacher Eugene Kurtz, who told me “Own more than one orchestration book, and don’t be afraid to look in all of them!”

In closing, I’ll say that, while I’ve found this idea of “performed by no one/performed by me/ performed by others” helpful for thinking about what I need to know before my process begins, I find it really useful for thinking about how I need to communicate my compositional intentions to others when they’re the ones converting my ideas into sound waves – in other words, for digging into the entire issue of notation, notation software, etc. That’s coming!

Also, while I began this post by talking about composers who start acoustic works in digital media and end up frustrated, I should say here that I use notation software throughout my compositional process, starting at a relatively early stage of the process. HOWEVER, I don’t rely on the software to tell me what I need to know about the acoustic media I’m composing for, or how I should notate for them. I don’t let it dictate or control my process, and you shouldn’t either! That discussion is coming as well ...

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Hard Truths About Composition

I had an interesting group meeting with my composition students yesterday. The main theme of the meeting seemed to be frustration. Some students work primarily in digital media, but are interested in creating music to be performed by live musicians on traditional acoustic instruments – they’re frustrated by the limitations of those instruments, and the notation they read. Some are primarily acoustic instrumentalists who are interested in using notation software as a compositional tool – they’re frustrated by the steep learning curve of the software, and the notational mistakes that the software still allows them to make. Before this meeting, I’d spent a lot of time thinking about the issues that my composition students have brought to my attention in recent years in broad sweeping terms – what my work with what I call “digital-first” composers has meant to my internal definitions of what constitutes musical literacy, how I might help students from the digital world compose effectively for acoustic media and vice versa, etc. However, after this meeting, I came back to some hard truths about composition that I hadn’t pondered for a long time:

1) Imagining new music is easy (well, relatively easy).
2) Bringing it into the world is hard, and takes skills.
3) Mastering those skills takes work.

Lots of us have great ideas for new music in our minds – a little snippet of something, or a big extended something. Bringing the music out into the world is a different matter, and happens for different people in different ways. Whatever your way happens to be, if you want to bring the music into the world as you imagined it, you have to have a set of deep skills to make that happen. If you’re creating stuff for digital media, you have to have deep knowledge of your digital audio workstation in order to bring your imagined music into the world exactly as you imagined it. If you’re creating stuff for you to perform, you have to have deep knowledge of your performing medium. If you’re creating stuff for other people to perform, you have to have deep knowledge of both their performing media and the language in which they want your compositional intent communicated to them. If there’s something you want to use as a tool to help you in your compositional work, you need to have deep knowledge of how that tool works, too. Developing each set of deep skills takes time, dedication, and concentration, and the skills don’t necessarily cross over – in my case, for example, my experience as an acoustic composer is no substitute for DAW knowledge when I’m creating music for digital media.

It’s actually taken me several hours of thought and false starts to get to that simple statement, and I imagine that my future posts will follow up on some of those false starts, but I think this is a good place for me to start this whole blogging adventure. Whatever else I might think or say about composing music, it’s important to acknowledge that parts of it are flat-out difficult, and require skills, knowledge, and hard work.